If you give someone wrapping paper as a present, should you gift-wrap it?
A few years ago Demetri Martin was in the car with his family when his son, then 5 years old, announced that he had a joke to tell. It was one of Martin’s “proudest moments,” he says. He recognized that his son’s spontaneous quip was similar to a classic one-liner written by Steven Wright, the comedian who years ago inspired Martin to try his own pithy version of stand-up comedy.
Not that Martin, who plays two shows at the Wilbur on Saturday, expects either of his kids to go into his line of work. The son of a Greek Orthodox priest, he’d been planning to become a lawyer when he dropped out of grad school to try comedy.
He has not looked back. From writing for Conan O’Brien and appearing as a regular guest on “The Daily Show” (as the “Senior Youth Correspondent”) in the early 2000s, Martin went on to host his own series on Comedy Central, “Important Things With Demetri Martin,” and star in the movie “Taking Woodstock” (2009). His most recent comedy special, “The Overthinker,” debuted on Netflix in 2018.
By now, he says, he has a surplus of new material — an hour’s worth from the tour that was cut short by the pandemic, plus plenty of new stuff that came to him during lockdown. Like so many of us, Martin used some of his down time at home for bouts of “weird housekeeping,” rummaging through and reorganizing his old notebooks and computer files. (He also took up a new art form — making mobiles.)
He found lots of stuff that embarrassed him, he says, but lots more that sparked new ideas. And make no mistake: This is an idea guy.
For Martin, comedy is a constant exercise in brain-teasing. He sets joke-writing goals for himself. On cross-country flights, for instance, he’ll challenge himself to write 100 jokes, just to kill the time.
His favorite artist is the surrealist Magritte. Martin named one of his early comedy albums “These Are Jokes”; when he wrote a book, he called it “This Is a Book.”
Henny Youngman’s most famous joke was just four words, Martin once noted on Stephen Colbert’s show. Could he write one that succinct? He gave it a shot: “Cannibals make me dinner.”
On the same show, he brought out his easel pad, on which he often presents visual jokes with simple sketches. One drawing revealed the sign he thinks strip clubs should hang on the door during their off-hours: “Sorry, we’re clothed.”
That’s just three words, as Colbert pointed out.
Martin’s inclination toward brevity proved helpful when he started doing stand-up in the late 1990s. As an unknown, he might get five or six minutes onstage. So he made a conscious effort to deliver as many jokes as he could.
Unlike many of his fellow comedians, Martin is a mild-mannered, even-keeled sort, a self-professed nerd who was frequently elected class president while growing up on the Jersey Shore. When he first started watching comedy as a high schooler — MTV’s “Half-Hour Comedy Hour,” VH1′s “Stand Up Spotlight” — he found himself predicting punch lines.
It was Wright, the Zen master of the non sequitur who grew up in Burlington, who first showed Martin that comedy could come at you from the blind side.
“He totally surprised me,” Martin remembers, speaking from his home in Southern California. “I didn’t have the vocabulary back then, but I thought, ‘Wow, this stuff is so economical. No segues.’
“I liked that I didn’t know anything about him, didn’t know anything about his life. I liked that it was just about his perspective.”
Years later, when they met backstage at “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” he told Wright what an influence he’d been.
“Got to give credit where credit is due,” Martin says.
He served as an altar boy at his family’s church all the way through high school. That’s where he learned how to hold the attention of an audience, he says. His father spoke extemporaneously during the liturgy, often eliciting laughs from a few notes jotted on an envelope.
“In my gaze as a comic, I was like, ‘Oh, he’s doing a set, 20 minutes every Sunday,’ ” Martin recalls. “It wasn’t quite, but kind of.”
His father died at age 46. A few years ago, Martin wrote and directed “Dean,” a small-budget feature film costarring Kevin Kline, which was loosely based on his own family experiences. It was billed with the tagline “A comedy about tragedy.”
Though Martin’s become a doting father himself, his wife, Rachael, likes to needle him about his joke-writing compulsions. At a recent dinner with some friends, he casually suggested that he’s not tortured like other creative folks might be. Rachael burst out laughing.
Another time, while she sat reading a magazine, he labored over a visual joke on a legal pad. When he finally broke the self-imposed code, he made an announcement, like a mad scientist: “I’ve done it!”
His wife rolled her eyes. “But what have you done, really?” she asked.
“It made us both laugh,” he reports.
Though his mother was disappointed when he dropped out of law school, he’s grateful he made the decision.
“I get to do a job that doesn’t really matter,” he says.
Still, he takes the job very, very seriously. If he has a joke that needs 10 words, can he do it in eight?
“That’s a game nobody cares about, really,” Martin says. But he sure does.
At the Wilbur Theatre, 246 Tremont St., Jan. 15 at 7 p.m. and 9:45 p.m. $39. thewilbur.com
Email James Sullivan at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.